The little known virus pregnant women need to be aware of: Mums with toddlers are particularly at risk

Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied 

When Shauna Newman fell ill with Influenza A in early pregnancy, then RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus) in her third trimester, nothing was mentioned to her about the risks these could pose to her baby.

The midwife, who was living in the Northern Territory at the time, could never have imagined the consequences the viruses would have for her son Oaky, now three. 

But the mum of four said she knew within 72 hours of his birth that something was wrong with her youngest. Despite not being a first time mum and being a health professional specialising in newborn care, her concerns were dismissed and it would take a year until doctors could work out what was wrong with her son.

As it turned out, the viruses she'd had led to Oaky contracting congenital CMV (Cytomegalovirus), a common but little known virus that can cause hearing and vision loss, decreased muscle strength and cerebral palsy and microcephaly (a smaller head size), among other complications.

Most adults or older children who contact CMV are not adversely affected, however pregnant women are at risk of passing this on to their babies and newborns who contract this are at a higher risk of complications. 

Picture: Shauna has become passionate about ensuring women are educated about the risks of CMV

Picture: Shauna has become passionate about ensuring women are educated about the risks of CMV

"It was never discussed, never even broached and I never considered that it could have been a possibility. We lived in the NT and there was very little education on CMV in the workplace and as a midwife was something I didn't know about or had come across." 

"The funny thing is now if you have toddlers in childcare that's an automatic risk factor. I had two-year-old twins in childcare at the time and knew nothing about it."

Despite Shauna's concerns over her new baby's lethargy, poor suck reflex, jaundice and weight loss that saw him labelled as failing to thrive, it wasn't until Oaky was four months old that he was tested for the virus. 

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When it came back positive, doctors - incorrectly - assured her he must have contracted it after birth - which poses less risk, meaning the family missed a critical opportunity to try to minimise the impact. 

Picture: Oaky was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids at 12 months

Picture: Oaky was diagnosed with moderate hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids at 12 months

"If they know it's congential they can have anti-viral medication, which does carry some side affects but reduces the chances of hearing impairment. But due to his timing we'd missed that window."

Doctors also told her that Oaky's other challenges - gut issues, a gross motor delay, and continued weight loss must be due to a secondary, yet undiagnosed issue. Shauna was told he had everything from a syndrome to a rare metablolic disorder and severe cow's milk allergy, none of which seemed to fit to the mum. 

"We saw other specialists, we were getting tested for other things, but he continued to lose weight. He had a severe gross motor delay, he got to a five month old baby and stopped progressing, he'd just lay on the floor and smile, he couldn't really move."

"I kept saying something's not right, but we were in a remote small town and by the time we got into the appropriate places he was one. When he saw a physio at 12 months they scored him as a five month old skills wise. They then checked his hearing and found he had moderate hearing loss."

Picture: Shauna says mums should taken more seriously when they raise concerns over their child's health

Picture: Shauna says mums should taken more seriously when they raise concerns over their child's health

"At that point they put it all together that it was congentital. It was a hard journey. Oaky is my fourth baby but also as a health professional, I was made to feel neurotic and isolated and that everyone thought I was crazy. They just kept saying 'that's his demeanour, that's his temperament'.

​Now a toddler, Oaky has caught up on his gross motor skills delay, and only has delays in fine motor and speech. He has weekly occupational and speech therapy sessions and hearing assessments every six months, but is a happy, thriving toddler.

Though as Shauna points out, not all families are so lucky and she'd like to see more education around the virus and more testing during antenatal care. 

"Oaky's lucky, he's come away with slight delays and hearing loss, but other children are severely affected and their parents often also hadn't known this existed. If we can prevent it happening or catch it early and we could possibly change a child's life."

Picture: Oaky is now a happy, thriving three-year-old

Picture: Oaky is now a happy, thriving three-year-old

June is CMV Awareness month and CMV Australia and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance are urging pregnant women, especially those with toddlers, to be extra vigilant about practising good hygiene to prevent it spreading through bodily fluids. 

They say women can reduce their risk by: 

  • Avoiding sharing food and utensils with children
  • Not cleaning dummies with your mouth 
  • Avoid kissing children on the lips
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap after changing nappies, blowing noses and feeding
  • Wipe down toys and surfaces that have come in contact with body fluids.